We recorded this episode shortly after Erik had just returned from New York City where he circumnavigated all of Manhattan in a kayak to promote the No Barriers Summit that took place in October 2018. He took interviews along the way as journalists and you can read more and see some photos here.
Erik, Dave, and Jeff dove in with Shannon asking about her and her daughter’s website and how they came up with the name: “endangered activists.”
Shannon shares her love of activism with her daughter and decided to encourage her passion for animals and so, they built a project around this passion.
“Perhaps activism is also an endangered species.”
Most of the time, Shannon explains, people find activism overwhelming and, especially in this day and age with all that is going on, it can seem like too much work to be involved. And instead, people become apathetic. But Shannon’s goal is to get people (including her daughter) to blast through this apathy, find their passion, and start working towards a goal or project to bring about change.
When Shannon was college age, she had dreams of being a dancer or a sports therapist. Then, at age 18, she had an incredibly traumatic life-altering experience when she was raped and nearly killed. This event would shape her trajectory in ways she couldn’t foresee at the time.
After living abroad for 10 years, getting married, having a baby, and returning to Colorado, Shannon received horrible news. Her younger sister was raped while at college. She started looking into how common this occurrence is and discovered that violence against women is extremely common on college campuses. Spurred by wanting to change this and other alarming gender violence stats, she became an activist “almost overnight.”
She chose to focus on Afghanistan after learning they have some of the worst records of gender violence and human rights violations.
“The activism has always been in me but I wasn’t putting it to use in the world.”
“Just as you’re exposed to the worst of humanity you simultaneously are experiencing the best of humanity.”
She started speaking to women in prisons who were often jailed for so-called “morality crimes,” for example being sexually assaulted or domestically beaten. She reflected upon her own experience and how despite the trauma she endured she was lucky that the USA doesn’t punish victims in the eyes of the law. The women were incredibly open and wanted to share their stories and she began to value the importance of bearing witness even more.
“We look upon “victims” as something less than — people that we have to help, nurture, and hold up and that is demeaning and patronizing. People who are victimized and have to struggle are typically the strongest people that I know, have the most resiliency, and the most capacity to change, if we give them the tools, allow them to own their own voice, their own story and allow them to share that.”
Erik is intrigued by Shannon’s quest to bring riding bikes to the women of Afghanistan and how she pursued this goal. As a mountain bike rider in Colorado, she was blown away that nobody seemed to be taking advantage of the beautiful terrain in Afghanistan and realized that despite other huge leaps forward in the workforce and other areas of society, it was still completely unheard of for women to ride bikes.
She decided to lead by example. She brought her bike overseas and just started riding, striking up conversations everywhere she went which would lead to dinners and coffee and more conversation, even other men and boys who would ride with her.
Five years later (after continuing to ride), she met the first generation of women who were riding bikes in Kabul as part of Afghan National Cycling Team. She met with their coach, who, it turns out, was training both men and women. And now, despite the persistence of old stereotypes and physical harassment, young women in Afghanistan are taking a stand and riding bikes, changing their culture and making history on two wheels.
This road to activism is not always easy, or instantly rewarding, or lucrative and it takes constant work and grit to succeed. She suggests that for others who are on the sidelines that want to get involved and feel overwhelmed: just start. Pick a passion and see how you can make small changes, even if it’s just locally, to affect change:
“Each action seems insignificant on its own….but when you look back and realize all the people that are putting their drops of water in the bucket: that’s how we’re making change.”
As Shannon progressed in her pursuits in Afghanistan she slowly started to accept what a strong role her own sexual assault played in helping her find this line of work.
“The things that happen to us, that we see as the worst of the worst, are also the catalyst for change in us.”
Her other tips include ignoring other people’s doubts about your choices and your decisions, to stay true to your vision, and to surround yourself with people that know more than you. Start the process, get comfortable feeling vulnerable, and stay strong in your fight to make a difference and overcome apathy.
Erik: It’s easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It’s been a struggle to live what I call a “no barriers” life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process. This process of growth, and change, and transformation that we’re all a part of, and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way, like holds on a rock face that lead us forward and give us clues to why it’s so important we get there.
Erik: And that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in, in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call “no barriers”.
Dave: Today we meet Shannon Galpin, an author, artist, global women’s right activist, film producer, and a National Geographic Adventurer of The Year. She spent a decade working on humanitarian projects in Afghanistan, including creating a groundbreaking street art project, Streets of Afghanistan. She’s a producer on the feature documentary, ‘Afghan: Cycles’ and has published two books including her memoir, ‘Mountain to Mountain’. Shannon was awarded an honorary diploma by the International Olympic Committee for her work promoting women’s equality through sports and is a fellow of the Explorer’s Club. Above all else, Shannon is a mother, and she’s determined to raise her daughter to use her voice for those that don’t have one.
Dave: Welcome everybody to our No Barriers Podcast. The is David Shurna, executive director and one of the founders of No Barriers. Thrilled to have you join us here with Erik Weihenmayer and Jeff Evans. We have a wonderful show for you today. Before we get started and introduce introduce you to our guest, Erik, you just recently had a pretty cool kayak experience in an unusual location for the kind of stuff that we do. You wanna talk a little bit about that?
Erik: Yeah, for sure. We have our No Barriers Summit every year. It’s a really big gathering where we all celebrate this No Barriers life together, and we’re doing it in New York City. So we went to New York to do a little pre-publicity, and just for the fun of it, my teammate and I kayaked around Manhattan Island. It was almost 30 miles, and it was a really cool, urban adventure. Kayaking down the Hudson and around the Statue of Liberty and under the Brooklyn Bridge. I could hear it roaring above, and you have this dense city thrumming, you know, just to your side. And you’re in this beautiful river. Really it was a cool adventure.
Erik: So about eight hours later, we came back around the corner and down the Hudson and back to the aircraft carrier, The Intrepid, which is the site of the No Barriers Summit. So it was really special to do that.
Dave: What is scarier, kayaking the full length of the Grand Canyon or trying to navigate the streets of New York City?
Erik: There were scary barges and cruise lines and cruise ships, and just, yeah. So there was a lot of boat traffic you had to definitely avoid, and then the water probably you wouldn’t really wanna drink it.
Jeff: You get some flotsam and jetsam?
Erik: And Skyler said at one point a turd was floating by, but I chose to believe it was a turtle. Turtle. I translated it in my mind. So yeah, maybe not the cleanest waterway, but it was just an amazing urban adventure.
Dave: Oh, dude. You just Baby Ruthed the podcast.
Erik: Well anyway, with that let’s start, but we have an amazing guest with us, Shannon Galpin. And she is an activist and an author and a film producer and an adventurer, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, fellow in the Explorer’s Club, just really honored to have you here, and you’re a local Coloradan. So it’s nice to sit here with you.
Shannon: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here with you all.
Erik: So on your website and doing some research, I saw that you call yourself and your group Endangered Activists. So what does that mean, and why do you think activism’s maybe becoming endangered in the world?
Shannon: This started with my daughter who’s 13 now because she wanted me to stop working in Afghanistan where I’ve been working for the past decade. She is passionate about wildlife conservation and truly was upset about that the fact that young people don’t seem to have a voice, or when they use it, adults don’t listen. And I have constantly worked in the world combating apathy and trying to promote that activism is not a dirty word. And so we started brainstorming, and I decided that I would step back a little bit from my work in Afghanistan, not quit but just kinda pull a little bit back and start mentoring her in what her passion was and teach her how to build a project or an organization around what she cared about. Literally within an hour or two of discussing it, we came up with the name Endangered Activism based on her passion for endangered species, my passion for combating apathy and trying to promote activism and the idea that perhaps activism is also an endangered species.
Shannon: She agreed with me, luckily, ’cause she’s kinda the boss in this particular project. So Endangered Activism was born in a coffee shop in Breckenridge a couple years ago as a mother/daughter collaboration. Dave: So I love this concept of combating apathy. Talk to us about why. What are some of the causes in your mind of that apathy? You know, we have a world today that has so much information and so much access to all the problems that need to be fought for. So what in your mind, where’s that apathy coming from?
Shannon: I think it’s exactly because of having too much information, and it’s assaulting us. You know, kind of from all sides, we’re never getting a break from the news constantly being streamed at us, and I think the people that I know that are wanting to do good in the world but now feel almost frozen. And it’s because they feel that it’s so overwhelming. That instead of plugging in and getting engaged and feeling like, okay there’s so much going on. I need to get engaged. I need to be part of the solution, and what can I do in my community? Or what can I join? How do I community activate? Instead, they become apathetic, and they actually kind of hunker down, pull in, and close the blinds because it’s just too much.
Shannon: And I get it. It’s kind of like sensory overload, and I think that what I’ve tried to stress over the years has been the idea that every individual can make a difference. And that literally if we think of our actions as drops of water, that it isn’t, you know, that one drop of water seems insignificant. Each action does seem insignificant on its own, and I constantly feel insignificant with what I do in the world and how I act in the world. And then it’s when you look back and realize all the people that are around you that are putting their drops of water in the bucket, and you realize that okay, together that’s how we’re making change. That’s how things move forward, but it’s hard to breakthrough that apathy, and I think that the best way to reengage those same people is through story telling.
Shannon: And that’s kind of the universal in which all of my work through the last couple of decades has been. No matter how different my projects have seemed, they’ve all come back to voice and the power of voice and story telling.
Jeff: I love how you … It sounds as though your daughter was sort of a catalyst for this new sort of optic that you use now for what you’ve done for years. Right?
Jeff: I have a 13 year old son so I get that age. It’s like it’s just blossoming and still a little innocent, right? But she somehow has brought out this other opportunity really, and for you two to be together. So my question for you is, can you back up the story just a little bit? You’ve got … If you’ve got a business card, you’d have like 15 bullet points on it, right? So I mean, I know it’s probably tough to distill it down, but if you can give us an idea of how this point in time came to be with activism, with writing books, with starting mountain biking coalitions. I mean, there’s a lot that’s going on. So give us that story that leads us here.
Shannon: Well, looking backwards now, it makes perfect sense. It’s like, I look backwards at this very secure root that led me here, and it’s like someone kind of sprinkled bread crumbs, like Hansel and Gretel. It totally makes sense, although the path here involves me graduating from high school a year early and thinking I was going to be a dancer and being raped and nearly killed when I was 18 to quitting dance to becoming a sports therapist hoping to work with dancers, but then I moved to Europe and stayed in Europe for 10 years and worked with Rugby players. It’s not linear in any way, but if that’s the fast version, after 10 years in Europe I moved back to Colorado.
Shannon: And that’s kind of where we’re at now starts because I moved back to Colorado with my then husband, and about a year, year and a half later, I was pregnant with my now daughter. And my only sister who’s 10 years younger than me, which was the main reason I had moved back from Europe was ’cause she was graduating high school. She was at college, and she was a campus rape. And every thing I thought I knew at that point, just went upside down because my own attack had not necessarily defined the way I lived my life, or so I thought.
Shannon: That had happened. I recovered, and I moved on. But I had never talked about it with anyone. No one knew about it at all.
Jeff: Not one soul on the planet knew about it?
Shannon: Not one soul on the planet. No.
Jeff: Not even your sister?
Shannon: No. Particularly not my sister, which at that point then when found out about my sister’s, inherently I had a lot of guilt. But at the time that happened, she would have been only eight or nine years old. So of course you’re not gonna have that conversation. And so then time passes. You never come back to having that conversation ’cause you’ve never had that conversation, and basically the same sort of thing happens to her while I’m getting ready to raise a new female and bring her into the world.
Shannon: I remember thinking that my parents had two kids, both daughters ten years apart. What were the odds that this could happen to them? Two different states, completely different situations, and I started just a random Google search and discovered that the odds are really bad, really, really bad for women. And that led me down a path that I changed my career as a sports trainer and became, almost overnight, a women’s rights activist.
Shannon: Inherently, the activism is always in me. I’m outspoken and blunt and very opinionated, but I wasn’t putting that to use in the world in a certainly coherent way. And I started researching what were the worst places in the world to be a woman? And Afghanistan was at the top of the list.
Jeff: So you went there?
Shannon: So I went there.
Erik: So much for apathy.
Shannon: Hmm? So much for apathy. Exactly. That is, at least the one word, I can be defined by a lot of words, but apathetic is not one of them, I’m proud to say. So I literally dove straight in, and I think that one of my better qualities is that I thrive in the deep end. I’m not uncomfortable being out of my depth. It doesn’t scare me, and I kind of like it. I like the puzzle of figuring things out, and I’ve always worked for myself. I’ve never had a boss. So the idea of becoming an activist was just another puzzle to figure out. It was just another organization to create.
Dave: But also cracking the code of Afghanistan just as a civilian, right? Just moving there, and how the heck do you get there? And how do you navigate, the fear, the danger, right? Most people would find that a huge barrier.
Shannon: Yeah. I think you’re exactly correct. When I, at that time, this is about 10 or 11 years ago, you start looking at the websites, and you can’t Travelocity your way to Afghanistan at that the time. You can now, but certainly 10 or 11 years ago you couldn’t. And so I reached out to a friend who was a photographer that I knew who had worked in Afghanistan and just asked, “Is there any way that you would sit down with me and share whatever insight you have?” She had an amazing fixer and translator in Kabul who she said she trusted with her life. Therefore, I trusted him with mine, and he was willing to work with me. Bought a ticket through a travel agent and showed up hoping against hope that he would be there at the airport in Kabul with a little white sign that had my name on it.
Shannon: And lo and behold, he was, and 25 trips to Afghanistan later, we’re still friends. We still work together, and I was able, slowly, slowly, over those initial trips to learn. My goal was not to go in there as the white savior thinking I know everything. My goal was to go to a country that is known for its gender violence, known for, yeah, just for being an incredibly tough place for human rights, to learn and to try to understand the ingredients necessary for such kind of outspoken gender violence and gender inequity in hopes that I would then be able to apply that back home where the same issues are occurring, just often a little bit more buried and a little bit more behind closed doors. And my goal was to learn.
Dave: How’d you start that process? Like, you know what I mean? ‘Cause I would find it, as I said, pretty intimidating. Just hit the ground, and what do you do? How do you start?
Shannon: So Najibullah was, is totally credited for this. It was like sun up, sun down, meeting all manners of men and women, particularly the women, but men too, who were members of parliament, who were teachers, who were women in prison, women who were self immolation victims. Men and women who were human rights activists themselves. All manners of the social strata so that it wasn’t just one sort of person that I was meeting. So that I could have a really open, clear view of what was happening, and traveling through the country without security, without these kind of barriers to human connection that most people in Afghanistan have.
Shannon: I’m traveling as a human in the back of a taxi cab, and that meant that my interactions with Afghans were one-on-one, human-to-human, just like anywhere else in the world. And that meant that I was accepted, and I was treated in a very welcoming way which opened up the doors to build a network over time.
Erik: My friend’s a scientist. He calls that the data collection stage, right?
Shannon: Yeah, exactly.
Dave: So you get all this information. You’re not going there to be the savior. You’re there to learn. I think as you think about people who get sort of stuck in becoming activists, some get stuck because they’re overwhelmed by the information about where am I going to start. Some get overwhelmed at this point of, okay I went and did this. I collected all this information. Walk us through how you then took what you’d done in that inquiry process and built it into something.
Shannon: There probably was a feeling of overload, although I don’t really remember the overload, more excitement. But then I’m sure everyone around me was like, “How are you gonna get all of this done?” ‘Cause I probably had a gazillion ideas, but that’s pretty normal for me. I literally started looking at, well what are the first impacts that could happen that I could work with and honestly, come back to the story telling because the best way to work with Afghans at this point, if I’m going to actually work with them and do anything to help, would be to humanize them. And at that point, and I think even today, we still have a problem humanizing the other.
Shannon: And particularly in a country where we are engaged militarily, we have now shifted to helping Afghans to seeing Afghans lumped in with the Taliban, and they are our enemy in kind of a broad stroke. So I wanted to normalize and humanize them, and I really wanted to highlight what the youth were doing because they were the great hope of the next generation, educated after the Taliban, exposed to the internet, getting bigger ideas of what is possible in the world. And there were these little sparks of activism, and my first projects were more traditional. They were self contained ideas and projects that I felt were bite size enough that I could take on with Afghans and fund raise for back here and share the stories of.
Shannon: But over time, that quickly evolved into the things that I was most passionate about, which was street art and sport and activism and all the ways that I feel are more revolutionary in a culture, and particularly for women and evolved that.
Dave: So tell our listeners what that looks like in this project if they don’t know ’cause-
Shannon: So the first big project around street art was a situation called Streets of Afghanistan, and it’s the first life size, street art, kind of pop-up, outdoor gallery that I created with international and Afghan photographers and brought it to the streets of Afghanistan quite literally and toured it in public spaces as a touring, literal pop-up gallery where these images were 10 foot tall by 17 feet across. And I could collapse them down, and then pop them back up, kind of like an accordion wherever we wanted to. We had 40 of these images. So it took a mini bus to haul them around Afghanistan, and Afghans thought we were insane when we’d pull up into a public space and start unloading these images and leave them up all day.
Jeff: And you said yes, maybe a little bit.
Erik: Are there permits in Kabul.
Shannon: Nope. Oh my gosh. No, the lawlessness of Afghanistan works in your favor. You can … There are times where it is frustrating, and there are times where the lawlessness is just a beautiful, beautiful thing. There’s no such thing as permitting. There’s no such thing as … I did go to the police chief in Kabul and let him know what I was doing and ask him to perhaps lay down a little groundwork when I was going into some new areas. “Would you let them know I’m coming so that we don’t get harassed?” And he was pretty cool about it.
Jeff: So obviously the question has to be begged that you walked into the lion’s den basically? Right? You walked in to perhaps the actual mouth of the demon, right? And you just said, “Here I am. Take me.” And there’s gotta be some painful experiences for you while you were doing this. That’s kind of the first thing I’d be interested in hearing. The second question would be, was this in part catharsis for you being there and having these experiences for what you went through and what your sister went through and thinking about the future of your daughter?
Shannon: So the irony is that when I first started working in Afghanistan, I, in no way, really linked it back to my own experience. I didn’t make that connection until several years in. Eventually, I was like, light bulb moment. Like how did I not make that connection?
Shannon: Yeah. In the beginning I didn’t, and part of it was I was so engaged in the culture and in the people. And yes, it is also incredibly dangerous. And there were many, many close calls that I credit having an incredible team of, incredible network of expats, journalists, photojournalist, Afghans, where I could ask good questions and try to make good decision, but every day, practically, there’s a suicide bomb. There’s a kidnapping attempt. There’s something going on, and that is a reality of choosing to work there.
Shannon: And yet, at the same time that you see and feel and are exposed to the worst of humanity, you’re also exposed to the best of humanity, and I’ve never experienced that in literally, every five second, 10 second, 30 second intervals, that you are juxtaposed with both at the same time. And you fall in love with the country very quickly and the people because of the resiliency of a people who’ve lived with four decades of war and just believe that they keep going.
Shannon: It wasn’t until I started working in the women’s prisons that I was really face-to-face with my own background because when I started working in the women’s prisons, I was meeting women in prisons all over the country that were predominantly jailed for morality crimes. So they’re in jail for the crime of being sexually assaulted. They’re in the jail for the crime of being domestically beaten or they’ve set themselves on fire to escape a bad marriage, and they’re thrown in jail.
Shannon: And so that’s when I really came up really close against the reality of how incredibly lucky I am because while I was raped and nearly killed and my sister was raped, we were not going to be thrown in jail. Kind of abuse on top of abuse. We were still perceived as, quote unquote, the victims. There may be a lot of issues around victim blaming in this country, but I’ve never seen a victim get thrown in jail for that. And so that sparked a lot of introspection and a lot of questions, and I came out of the Kandahar jail, which was the jail that I expected to be the most difficult because it’s in Kandahar, which is Taliban controlled as a province. And I had to wear a burka the entire time I was there so I could avoid being kidnapped. So it’s the most closed that I’ve ever been traveling around Afghanistan, but I went to the prison expecting it to feel very closed off. And the women would be very closed off to me.
Shannon: It ended up being the most engaged that I’ve ever had an experience in a women’s prison where women were literally coming up to me, pulling on my sleeve to tell me their story. Like pouring out of them, and that in that moment, two things kind of happened. One was, I think it was the first time that I truly understood the power of story and how powerful voice is. That these are women who no one has ever cared to hear their story and not a judge, not a family member, nobody. And so here for the first time, someone is coming to them with no other agenda, but I wanna hear your story.
Shannon: And I left in tears behind my burka because I can’t do anything for these women. There’s literally nothing that I can do. I went in recognizing after the meeting was over, or the day was over, that there wasn’t going to be a way for me to work in the prison. That just wasn’t a feasible … The commander wasn’t going to allow that. All I had done was feel, in that moment, that I had taken, and I had been there and taken their time, taken their stories. And it wasn’t until days later that I was sitting with all of that, that I realized that the reason that they were pulling on my shirt sleeve, and the reason that they were lined up like swarming me, was because finally was there just to bear witness to their story and how incredibly powerful that is. And that everything that I inherently knew was the thread of my work but I hadn’t made my work, was story telling.
Shannon: Empowering the voice of others because often victims, quote unquote, I say, victims, are looked upon as less than, and we look upon victims. And whether that is victims of sexual assault or domestic violence or child abuse or any number of things or human rights, developing countries, poverty. We look upon victims as something less than that we have to help, and we have to nurture, and we need to hold up. And that is demeaning. It’s patronizing. People who are victimized and who have to struggle are typically the strongest people that I know. They’re the people that have the most resilience. So the people who have the most capacity to change if we give them the tools, if we allow them to own their own voice and their own story and to share that so that that comes out of them and isn’t just hiding deep inside, like a deep, dark secret.
Shannon: Once I kind of had that click into place, then I started being much more vocal about my own story. I hadn’t ever been. I wrote a memoir, and I really was much more about empowering … help support a graffiti art workshop in Afghanistan so that artists understood the power of public street art using voice through art in a public sphere, which is something that I’m very passionate about. And what are all the ways in which you can empower voice, whether that is in your community, whether that is globally, whether that is individually?
Jeff: I think we should definitely dive into that idea of how you empower people’s voices, but I also am curious because the street projects and the working in prison, also led to mountain biking.
Jeff: So that’s like a pretty cool trail.
Jeff: That you took and used it as a tool to explore and to break through barriers and promote women’s equality and a lot of cool stuff. So how did the mountain biking piece come out of it.
Shannon: One of those little side diversions in which I saw these goat paths in Afghanistan. I’m like, “Oh my gosh. I’m a mountain biker in Colorado. Why can’t I ride these trails in Afghanistan? It’s so beautiful. No one realizes how gorgeous it is here.” And I happen to be traveling in the north, kind of these northern provinces with a good friend, and it was springtime. And it’s lush, and it’s green. The flowers are blooming, and there’s all these game trails and goat trails. I mentioned it, and he’s like, “Well, why can’t you?”
Shannon: I’m like, “You’re right. Well, why can’t I?” And so I said, “Do you really think”-
Erik: I’m picturing a lot of women riding their bikes with like burkas on.
Jeff: And spandex.
Shannon: Yeah, exactly.
Erik: I’m trying to figure out the image.
Shannon: So the funny, well not so funny. The irony was, is that I had been in Afghanistan three times at that point, recognizing that while bikes are everywhere, it was only boys and men that were riding bikes. It was the only place I had been to that point, and I have lived in many countries and in the Middle East before, where there were no women or girls on bikes. And so I decided that I would come back with my mountain bike and use it as a way to explore the question of why because I was meeting women who ran for president. I was meeting women who were members of parliament. I was meeting women who wanted to become judges. All these ground breaking, barrier breaking careers for women, and women who are joining a boxing club and TaeKwonDo. But bikes were still the last taboo, and every single person I talked to, men, uncles, fathers, brothers, would you let your sister, wife, daughter, ride a bike? Absolutely not. No way. Hard no.
Jeff: Car was okay?
Shannon: Car was okay.
Jeff: Bike was not?
Shannon: Yeah, bike was not.
Shannon: Yeah, and I started riding my bicycle in Afghanistan to challenge that barrier because I realized very quickly on in Afghanistan as a tall, blonde woman that does not look Afghan, you can get away with a lot because they treat you as an honorary man. So my rule in Afghanistan was very much this hybrid where I’m treated like a man by the men and allowed the same access that the men have, but because I’m a woman, I have access to the women. And I get to go then leave the men and have one-on-one time with the women and undiluted through the perception of what they’re worried a man might think or say.
Shannon: So I was in a very unique position, and so I started riding my bicycle in areas where I knew locals and provinces I knew were relatively safe and land mine cleared. And started posing that question, and every single time the groups of people that gathered or that I would run into, I was always met with curiosity. I was never met animosity for being on a bicycle. It ended up being the best ice breaker that I could have ever imagined. I had more impromptu, spontaneous conversations with Afghans than I ever would have had, or ever have had in any other way because they were caught off guard, and you weren’t in the structured meeting where you’re supposed to have an agenda. It was just like running into somebody, you know, on the corner, and you have something in common. Or you’re curious, and you just start talking about it.
Shannon: So I got to share my culture. They asked me where I was, why was I here, and you start having these one-on-one conversations that then would leave to invitations for tea or dinner, whatever.
Erik: Would people jump in and ride with you?
Shannon: Yes. I ended up riding with a lot of boys, a lot of men. We’d swap bikes often, which disc brakes do not translate well. So there’s a lot of crashes, a lot of over the head when they’d squeeze my brakes because typically their brakes didn’t work. So I would be squeezing their brakes to no avail. They’d squeeze mine and flip over, and then have the question, would you ever allow your daughter to ride a bike? Would you ever allow your wife to ride a bike? And the question still was no. I’m sorry, the answer still was no. And the response would be, but it’s your culture. It’s not ours, and I just kept riding in different parts of the country.
Shannon: Every single time I would go back, I’d come with my bicycle, ask questions, use it as an ice breaker, but go about my normal work, quote unquote. And then five years later, I met the first, first girls to ever ride bikes in Afghanistan, and everything changed again.
Jeff: Is that where the strength in numbers comes from?
Jeff: Tell us about that.
Shannon: So I met the first generation of women, which at that point, I say generation. Five girls who were riding bicycles in Kabul as part of the Afghan National Cycling Team, and it came about because a photojournalist living in Kabul who rode his bike knew about me and said, “I’ve met a boy who’s part of the men’s national team. He is so excited to meet you. He’s a waiter at this café. I told him you’re gonna come by tomorrow. Go see him.” So I went and met with him. He invited me to go for a ride with the men’s National Team, which I had no idea there was a men’s cycling team. Literally, Afghan, young men, in spandex. Never seen them. Never heard of them. No story had ever been done on them before. Yeah, it was crazy.
Shannon: So met with them on the north side of Kabul at a petrol station. We’re gonna go ride the highway, and their coach comes driving up to meet them there. And there’s a women with them, and turns out that this woman who I thought was his assistant was also a member of the women’s cycling team. And the coach was training not just men, but women. And at that moment, I was like, “Nope. I’m not going for a bike ride. I’m going to stay right here and talk with you, and the boys can go for a ride. And I wanna know more about this women’s team.”
Shannon: And that was the start of working with the first generation of girls to ride bikes. Five years later, six years later now, ’cause that was the fall of 2014, no 12, 2012, yeah. That was the fall of 2012. So six years ago there’s the National Cycling Team. There’s another racing team in another province called Bamiyan. There’s been multiple iterations of girl’s bike clubs. So hundreds of girls have learned to ride bikes. So there literally has been this start of a burgeoning revolution on two wheels of girls riding bikes, and they do it risking their lives.
Shannon: I mean, they risk their lives. They risk their honor. They have rocks thrown at them. They are targeted. They do this with enormous amount of risk. They are insulted. They’re told they’re dishonorable girls, but that doesn’t stop them. They know they’re part of changing culture, and they refuse to be told that this is not something that they can do. They see that girls all over the world do this, and recognize that no one can tell us we can’t do this.
Erik: So it’s really interesting because it’s like we talked about apathy in the face of these big forces, and then you talked Afghanistan being such a resilient people. And then these women now not being apathetic but getting rocks thrown at them and expressing amazing resiliency now. So it’s like they’re more resilient, right? Do you think that drop of water theory that you talked about is actually happening? Or do you personally sometimes get discouraged, you know what I mean? Like it’s just not happening enough or maybe it’s two steps forward and three steps back?
Shannon: Well, I would say yes to both of those questions. Yes, I think that the drop of water is happening, and that I definitely see that. And yes, I get discouraged. My discouragement comes usually because it’s not happening fast enough or that there’s corruption or that there is the risks inherent with the work. And it’s just so incredibly difficult, but at the same time, this is a country in which we’re watching women risk their lives to create change because they believe it is their right. That no one should be able to tell them no, and that they have seen that generations of women before them, in other countries, have gone through the same thing.
Shannon: And we’ve talked about what happened in America and in England when women started riding a bike at the turn of the century. It was intrinsically linked with the suffragette movement.
Shannon: And women, when they started riding bikes, were told that they were immoral and promiscuous. American women were immoral and promiscuous because they dared to ride a bike.
Jeff: There might have been some rocks thrown at them.
Shannon: And there might have been some rocks thrown at them. Exactly. Yeah.
Erik: So you make that connection with your girls, with the women.
Shannon: I do. I’ve taught-
Erik: So they understand. They have a perspective of like, hey you’re in a dynamic, like crazy part of history.
Shannon: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You are one piece of this, that while it feels like you are alone in this and that you’re very isolated. One, look around at the region. There are pockets of girls in India and Iran and Pakistan doing … that are riding, that are a few generations past where you’re at, but that are still threatened or still looked upon as dishonorable. But there’s more of them. So culturally that is happening and shifting, but that in the long stretch of time since there was a bicycle, that the bike has always been an intrinsic part of almost every culture’s women’s rights movement. And that if you look at that, systemically don’t forget that then you are actually part of history going forward.
Erik: Wow. That’s powerful.
Jeff: Yeah, that’s some pioneering shit right there.
Dave: So I’d love to bring it back to this, where we started around Endangered Activism because clearly from this conversation, you are the type of individual who sees a problem and says I wanna go figure out how I can help, right? For a lot of our listeners, I think they might not … They couldn’t imagine themselves to be that way. A lot of us can’t, right? I’m not someone … You might think of yourself as I can go do that, but it’s hard. The work is hard to make that happen, and I think that can lead to the apathy too. So we do a lot of work with kids at No Barriers, middle and high school kids. We work with adults who want to make a difference, but don’t know where to start.
Dave: So what’s your advice for folks who maybe aren’t inclined like you are to just jump up and do it? How do you propel those folks forward?
Shannon: I wouldn’t advise everybody to go the path that I’ve done for sure. It’s really, for me, I think the important thing is that for me this feels natural. This doesn’t feel like a radical step. None of it does. It may sound like that to someone who isn’t comfortable in those things, but for me, it’s never felt radical. So I think it’s about really recognizing what are your skillsets and what do you love? What do you like? I love street art. I love story telling. I love not doing the same thing every day. So hence, write a book, try to teach myself how to become a producer on a film, street art, and other forms of story telling, and creating new projects because I need that sort of creative stimulation.
Shannon: So I think that it’s about what are the skills that you bring to the table in your daily life? What are the ways in which you get excited to engage in your community? And then how do you help that way? Whether that may be … Is that coaching in sports? Is that looking at what community issues there are around that that need your support? Is that getting involved in local politics because the broader, big politics frustrates you? Well, then running for local office is totally doable, and how do you effect change in your direct community?
Shannon: I think that’s where we’re coming back to because we can always look at pointing the finger and saying, “Oh, look. There’s horrible human rights issues in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or wherever. There’s sex trafficking in Cambodia and Vietnam.” Pick any problem. We have all those same problems here. Denver is a major sex trafficking hub. We have major human trafficking problems in the US. We have domestic violence. We have sexual violence. We have poverty issues. We have refugee problems that we need to support. And so how do we plug into those issues that are all in our local community?
Erik: People probably like, ’cause I know I personally feel unqualified and ill-equipped for the big missions ahead sometimes. So I mean, was that part of your experience? When you went to Afghanistan, when you started all these projects, is that a natural feeling? Or is that just me?
Shannon: No, I think it’s a super natural feeling, but again, I think I was always choosing to one, be really open to surrounding myself with people who knew more than me and always listening, always trying to learn. And then contributing what I knew best, and trying to plug the gaps of where I thought of, okay this is what I bring to the table. This is what my skillset is versus I’m gonna come in and do everything.
Erik: It sounds like you’re very comfortable with that feeling of being vulnerable and-
Shannon: I am now.
Shannon: I didn’t start out that way. I’ve learned … This has been a big learning curve for me in that I think that I grew up, and I think probably a lot of people do, thinking that your strength is your biggest strength. And what I slowly, after working in Afghanistan came to learn, was that my vulnerability was my biggest strength, and that was a massive turning point for me. It’s so hard because you’re super exposed, and you feel like, okay well I don’t have anything protecting me. If my vulnerability is my biggest strength, then that’s where I’m gonna lead from. What’s gonna keep me safe?
Shannon: But what you recognize is that actually your vulnerability exposed, people around you step up and help carry the burden with you. You’re more authentic. You’re more trustworthy ’cause you’re leading from a place that’s real versus when you are leading, thinking that your strength is your strength, and there’s an armor around you. And nobody actually really gets in, and I don’t think that you build the same coalitions and the same partnerships and the same camaraderie that you do. But we are taught that we have to be strong. Resiliency is what we want, and resiliency I guess, I shouldn’t say that ’cause resiliency is good. But we’re taught that strength is what we should be striving for, and I disagree.
Erik: Well, to bring it back to your personal story, I mean, so you’re sexually assaulted. You almost die. So you would think you would put that armor around you and you’d close down. That’s very natural response, but seems like you did the opposite. And do you think that those things are linked somehow? Like Jeff was asking earlier? Or do you think you would have done all this stuff despite anything?
Shannon: No. I had a really tough conversation with my best friend in the Heathrow airport coming back from a trip from Afghanistan where I’d had a journalist with me for three weeks, which was horrible experience just in terms of feeling completely exposed. Everything being documented, but I came out of it. And I’m calling her from Heathrow. I’m out of Afghanistan. I’m on my way home, and I said, “I don’t really have this thoughtfully formed yet in my head, but I need to run this by you because I think that I’ve just cracked something open in that I don’t forgive the person who assaulted me. I’m never going to thank him in that respect, but I would not be the person that I am had I not been assaulted.”
Shannon: And there’s a very strange thread that now connects us because of that, and I like who I am. I’m proud of the work that I do. I am proud of the mother that I am. I’m proud of the good that I’m trying to do in the world and the mistakes I’ve made. I’m even proud of those, but I probably would not be living the life that I am had that not happened. And that’s a hard thing to admit.
Erik: One of those amazing contradictions in this life, right?
Shannon: Yeah, and so essentially reconciling that the things that happen to us that we see as the worst of the worst of the worst are also the catalyst for change in us that can be the best in us.
Jeff: You can relate to that, right [inaudible 00:47:19]?
Erik: I can’t relate to that at all.
Jeff: I don’t think everybody’s equipped to do, especially in different venues, what you two have done. You’ve taken a pretty challenging, world flipping experience, and then using it as fuel and as momentum. And even though, Shannon, like you, maybe it didn’t occur to you, right? Immediately, obviously, but years later you had this epiphany like wait a minute. Okay, now I get it. Right? And all the while, you had been doing this thing, right? You had. It just didn’t occur to you. Is that fair to say?
Shannon: Yeah. Well, ’cause I never … Until someone says why, you just do what you do. Until someone questions you and you have to actually justify why you’re doing what you do, you don’t think about the reasons. You’re just living your life, doing what you do, making the choices that feel right and trying to go about your business. So it wasn’t until, honestly, it was a Dateline NBC story with Ann Curry. I got … She was asking me why. She said, “Why do you do this?” And I had no answer. I had this-
Erik: Yeah, I hate that question.
Shannon: It’s horrible, right?
Jeff: Ann Curry’s asked you that question once before.
Shannon: And you’re like, it’s a super … She bores into you with this stare, and she doesn’t let you off the hook. And you’re like, “I don’t know.” I had a super trite answer. I said something like, “‘Cause if I don’t do it, nobody will.” Or something so stupid. It was just ridiculous, and she knew it. And I don’t know. No one had ever asked me and not let me off the hook. So then I’m like, “Oh, God. I don’t know.” And it was then, literally, on camera, for that interview, that I recognized that that was my reasoning.
Jeff: Can I follow this up though. This is an interesting that, if I’m a listener, I wanna know. I know this wasn’t an easy path for you, but you … It sounds like you’re just this badass woman who just took this and just went in, and you made it just so easy ’cause you’ve just got you, your character. There’s a lot of people, like I said, who I don’t think have, or at least they don’t think they have, the ability to take this lemon, lemonade sort of deal. So what would be, if you had to really kind of wrap it up, how would you tell those people who have had these events in whatever facet, in whatever venue, to take that and then to turn it and use it as fuel. And I know that’s a very, very hard question, but if I could pull that out of you in some way.
Shannon: Well, no that’s a really good question ’cause you’re right. We’re talking about what has happened, and so it’s easy to talk about okay, so here’s the trajectory. We have a limited amount of time, and rah, rah, rah. But it took 20 years, and it doesn’t mean that there’s not … dear friends, whose couches I go and cry on and say, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to bear the weight of this.” Or, “I don’t know how to do this anymore. I don’t know.” And choosing the life that I’ve chosen as a creative, as an activist, has zero security. You know, I’m raising a daughter with no security, financial security, not to mention physical security, but financial security.
Shannon: There’s no umbrella for that. So there’s an enormous amount of fear to manage, and there’s also a lot of other people’s doubt to manage. And not to somehow let that seep in because while I feel that I’m taking off bite sized pieces that I can be excited about creating, that doesn’t mean that other people around you are not saying you can’t do this. You shouldn’t do this. Why are you doing this? Especially as mother, you know, as a single mother, co-parenting her daughter, you shouldn’t go to Afghanistan. You shouldn’t have such an unstable career. You shouldn’t talk so openly about x, y, or z, and it’s very hard to stay true to that inner compass that says, “No. This is exactly what I should be doing.” Just because of my mother doesn’t mean I change my trajectory.
Shannon: I want her to follow her trajectory. So therefore, I have to live by mine. So she sees that as a model. And so I think that really what it is, is recognizing that I didn’t go from 18 years old, raped and nearly killed, to now having accomplished what I’ve accomplished overnight. That it took bite sized steps along the way, and a lot of reflection, a lot of working to surround myself with good people who knew more than me all the time.
Dave: Well, where can our listeners go to learn more about your latest work?
Shannon: The latest work would be at endangeredactivism.org. That would be the project with myself and my daughter which is really where a lot of the focus is right now, but-
Erik: Your memoir too, right? ‘Mountain to Mountain’. Is that right?
Shannon: Thank you. Yes. My memoir, ‘Mountain to Mountain’ is out for a couple years, and that definitely kind of details the trajectory of becoming an activist and answers maybe some of those questions as to the ups and downs and how that came to be. And then there’s a movie, ‘Afghan Cycles’ that just came out which has been a five year production, documenting the first generation of girls in Afghanistan. That’s now in the film festival circuit.
Dave: well, thank you so much, Shannon, for joining us and sharing some insights that I think we can all learn from. One of the principles we teach at No Barriers is the idea of elevate, which is your life needs to be about more than just yourself. You need to go out and do something for others, and I think your life embodies that spirit. And so it’s been an honor to talk to you, and thank you so much.
Shannon: Aw, thanks so much for having me. This has been amazing.
Jeff: God, I mean. What do you say? I mean, you’re an amazing human being, and thank you for being on this planet and doing what you do. You got a heart of service, and it’s good. And you make it better.
Shannon: Thank you.
Dave: Well guys, what a journey that was.
Jeff: I’m a little exhausted.
Erik: I know, right. I mean-
Jeff: She fought it all, all at the same time.
Dave: Right. It’s like gosh, I gotta go out and do more. You know, so what did you all hear that kind of bubbled to the surface for ya?
Erik: [inaudible 00:54:13] I’m always first.
Dave: You’re the most handsome.
Erik: Well, Shannon talked about just starting a process, feeling vulnerable, and then collecting data. You know, the inquiry phase, and then trying to sort that information. Trying to figure out how you can make an impact in the world, and something that you can do. So I think what she was laying out was kind of a little bit of a recipe for activism, and I think that’s really important for people ’cause I’m into recipes. I’m into maps, like something that you can takeaway from it, and I think she gave us a lot of good information on how you could actually go out and do this thing, or something that is important to you that you’re totally overwhelmed by.
Jeff: Yeah because that was the thing that really was fascinating. I think about her and her storyline and how it all came to be, and you know, I wonder if … She is obviously extraordinary, but is she just that extraordinary? Or does everybody have that and can sort of pull from that? And that was the thing that really hit me. Here’s this human being that basically just said, “Okay, I’ve had this experience, and now, whether I know it externally or not, my soul wants to go in and just sort of face it and figure out a way to turn that into something that’s really positive and impact the world in such a profound way.” So yeah, I agree, Erik. It’s that sort of playbook that I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it laid out like that before. So really remarkable, and I sure hope everybody enjoyed that as much as I did. Dave, what do you got?
Dave: I think one of the quotes I’ve been using in some recent programming at No Barriers is a Nietzsche quote that says, “He who has a why to live for, can endure any how.” And some of that last part of our conversation about once you find that why and that thing you care the most about, no matter how hard what you face is, and she was talking about how she faced many difficult things as she was going through these projects, she finds that energy in the why. And I think that’s so much at the root of what we talk about is find that why. What’s that purpose for you? ‘Cause that’s the fuel that’ll get you through the hardest of hard.
Dave: Well, thank you guys. It’s been another great discussion for those of you who are listening, if you enjoyed the conversation, please like and share this podcast with others. That’s one of the greatest things you can do to help out No Barriers. You can learn more about No Barriers at nobarriersusa.org. You can take our new virtual learning course that walks you through how to break through the adversities in your own life. You can sign up for programs for yourself, your families, your kids, and folks that you know that might benefit from the kinds of experiences that we provide. So thank you all for great conversation.
Jeff: Alright. No Barriers.
Erik: Right on.
Dave: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, which is called ‘Guidance’. The production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Schaffer. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Jessie Singer and Tyler Kotttman. Graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jaime Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.